Karin van der Beek, Art Historian


English | Dutch

Karin van der Beek: You graduated from 3 Art colleges , Istanbul, London and Toronto, and had musical training in Sarajevo. It seems that art has always played an important role in your life. Are there more artist in your family?

Maya Kulenovic: I started drawing before I could talk, and it was my favourite activity when I was little. I was the only child and both of my parents worked, so I spent a lot of time by myself, usually drawing or flipping through various books on art, medicine, archaeology, zoology etc. Drawing was a form of storytelling for me, and also a form of communication. No one in my immediate family is an artist. They are mostly scientists and writers, but they all have a strong appreciation for the arts, and some have painted in their free time. My parents have always been very enthusiastic about my art and never questioned my decision to do it professionally. Both of them, but especially my mother, have always admired artists and artistic freedom of thinking and living, which is somewhat in contrast with their own lifestyle of discipline and logic.

K.V.D.B.: Your cornerstones of art are life, death and love. At what age did you start having thoughts and feelings about art at this universal level? What was your personal source?

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BRIMSTONE, 2012, oil on canvas, 26″ x 24″ (66cm x 61cm)

M.K.: Art for me is a very introspective, private activity. It is a way of looking into the deepest desires, fears, and sources of strength, so naturally these three main themes emerged over time. Some elements of suffering and struggle can be seen in my early childhood drawings, but usually with a positive outcome, and with a sense of empathy and affection for the subject. I think that the universal element comes from my position as an observer or a witness. As a quiet child and a young person, I have often been in this role: alone, involved in my work and slightly at the margin of social interaction, watching the events unfold in front of me.

K.V.D.B.: People do see darkness in your work. You make a reference to early Renaissance images of Christ. You also make a reference to redemption. How strong is the connection between your childhood experiences in Sarajevo and the themes in your work?

M.K.: I don’t think that Sarajevo has much to do with my work. The fact that I was born there was incidental. The city itself did not make too much impact on me, at least not on any rational level. Most of my life I spent looking at books and documentary footage and I think that this is where most of my imagery comes from. But there are two cultural elements that were important: first, much of the government-sponsored culture revolved around glorification of Second World War, so the imagery of war and disaster was embedded in my thinking since a very young age. Second, the fact that the society I was brought up in was not religious at all, gave me a neutral starting point. I learned about religion primarily from art, through the emotions that these images evoked in me. The images of Christ on the cross, as well as classical Greek sculptures of ’dying Gaul’ for some reason have had the strongest emotional impact. I think it is the moment of transformation, loss, sacrifice, awe, mystery and hope, and transcending the boundaries of the material world that moved me (even though I am an agnostic). This is why, I think, I always try to depict more than one thought or feeling in my work, and always some sort of a transitory state, between life, death, and some form of re-birth. Later, as I explored Eastern philosophies, emptiness became more and more present in my paintings, and not simply as negative space behind the figures, but as active, sometimes comforting and sometimes aggressive ‘Unknown’.
The war in Former Yugoslavia in the 90’s of course made a huge impact on my life, however it was not the source of my ideas, but it was a personal experience which gave me a different point of view on the issues of conflict and war, and pretty much everything else… it cannot be compared to any book or film.

K.V.D.B.: Are these themes of darkness and loneliness in contrast with your personal life of hard work, discipline and physical training?

M.K.: I live with full intensity but I am not very disciplined. I love my work so I work a lot, and I focus with a great intensity on what I do at the time. However, this comes naturally, and there is not much discipline required. I’m terribly messy, and I often forget to eat or sleep, so I’m not very organized in other ways. As to the physical training, I run and practice martial arts. Running for me is a meditation, and a spiritual experience. But this has not always been the case. When I was young and not very happy, I ‘abused’ running almost in the same way an addict would use drugs.

Martial arts are introspective as well as expressive – which is why it falls in the category of ‘arts‘rather than sports. It feels natural to me as it is a high intensity activity, where one has to be fully focused and very precise, have perfect coordination of timing and movement, and where little mistakes are punished. It requires strong mind and endurance, as well as a good tolerance of pain, and a good combination of control and instinct.  The ideal mental state in martial arts is the one with full focus, where thought, intuition and action are one. It is simple and direct. When I paint, I have a similar attitude: I try to paint with complete focus on bringing the image to life. Even though the images may be complex, there is no unnecessary embellishment or decoration; I try to make each move carry as much power and weight as I can.

K.V.D.B.: You think of your work as ‘conditions’ rather than ‘events’, and you talk about humans as victims and killers, and human conditions of lust, awe and hope. Do any circumstances in society concern or inspire your work at this moment.

M.K.: I am interested in the darker end of the spectrum of human emotion and interaction. The ‘conditions’ I talk about are long term emotional states, which individuals and societies live not as a momentary emotions, but as states of being. Awe, greed, love, terror, anxiety, revenge, fear etc are often main motivators of human behavior, and they are usually hidden under the mask of rational ‘reasons’. The negative is just as present as positive, and one can easily be misinterpreted for the other. Human minds and actions are full of contradiction, and this is exactly what I am interested in. I wish not to ’illustrate’ but to evoke, and to ask the right questions rather than provide an answer. I look at current events as well as historical, and also at private, small tragedies as well as the large ones. The first impressions and ideas in this direction I had while learning about the first and second world war as a child, especially the images of concentration camps and destroyed landscapes. I was fascinated and horrified by the ability of humans to exhibit such compassion and such cruelty. This very simple, eternal question has followed me ever since. My brief personal experience of war in the 90’s, although limited, changed my point of view. It was nothing like I would have expected it to be. The feelings were much quieter, much deeper, much worse than I ever thought possible. After that, I think, I have never really managed to feel completely and utterly safe. Since then I have been researching contemporary genocide, war and violence, and following them as they happen.

K.V.D.B.: ‘Faces’ in your work are meant as portraits of moods, as a state of being. Do you wish for a reaction from the viewer or do you want to confront the viewer?

M.K.: I don’t think of the viewer while I’m painting. I try to create an image which will feel true and alive to me. My paintings have to surprise me every time I look at them, or appear to change as my mood changes. I have to be able to look at them over and over again and still not be bored by them. I also want to see surprising technical elements which I don’t know how I did, or how I could repeat them. In other words, every painting has to have a life of its own, which I cannot completely control, but which I can only allow it to happen if I am receptive enough to what is happening on the canvas. So when it comes to the viewer‘s experience, I would like them to see the paintings as a ‘life‘or a ‘mind‘ or a strong human presence, which reflects some of the viewer‘s own thoughts or experiences. But I don’t want to ‘control’ the viewer. The relationship between the viewer and my painting belongs to the viewer.

K.V.D.B.: When you paint portraits of children and elderly people, do you use models?

M.K.: I use a series of photographs of models as a reference to lighting and facial structure, but the emotional content comes from found photos or stills from documentary films, and from imagination. The reason for this is that what I am interested in is really a fleeting moment which is incidental and doesn’t happen in the studio; these moments are very rarely caught in their intensity by a documentary photographer and should not be faked. So my paintings are a synthesis of imagination, model, found resources and memory.

K.V.D.B.: Your architectural paintings show an atmosphere of loneliness and abandonment, with strange perspectives. Is having spent your childhood in an Eastern European country of significance to these paintings? Where do you get your examples …photography?.

M.K.: Actually, Yugoslavia was an independent, South-East European country and different than countries of former Eastern Block in that there was no seclusion from the rest of the world. It was a mixture of Slavic cultures with Austro-Hungarian, Turkish and some Mediterranean and Jewish influences; it was Socialist, not Communist, and not isolated from the influence of either West or East. It was a relatively poor country (by European standards) with an exceptionally bloody history, and a huge contrast between quite evolved city life and a primitive rural core. As a child, I felt the presence of that weight of history, and also a strange paranoia that something bad will inevitably happen. Also I was always appalled by the way people treated animals and the environment, which I saw as similar to the images and descriptions of wars and destruction I was reading about and watching in tv documentaries… but I think that this is also more related to the particular time I grew up in, rather than the place. In any case, I don’t think that much of this is cultural, but individual. Even though I had a very supportive and strong family, I was a sensitive, not very well socialized and often lonely child, who did not fit in, did not like her surroundings most of the time, and had a tendency to frequently get angry at ‘the injustices of the world’.

K.V.D.B.: Your last paintings seem to be lighter in theme and color. Has something changed in your life or work lately?

M.K.: There have always been shifts back and forth in my work, and they are due to the fact that I explore the different ends of my ‘spectrum’ of interest. For example I mentioned before that my portraits are usually about the effects of an ‘event’ or a series of ‘events’ (usually malevolent) on a person; this can be long term or short term, it can be permanent or transitory, before or after. Within this range there are many possibilities – from explosive expression to internal conflict, from hate to quiet resignation. The series you mentioned was more passive and quieter more resigned and sedated. To me there is not much essential difference here. I am still exploring the same questions.

Interviewer: Karin van Der Beek, art historian